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The Marathon Makers by John Bryant

Release date: 22nd March, 2008
Publisher: John Blake Publishing

List Price: £14.99
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The Marathon Makers
By John Bryant
John Blake Publishing

4sportsbooks.co.uk price: £9.00 saving £6 on rrp

Later this year, the centenary of the marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards will be marked by author and keen distance runner John Bryant and other marathon runners who will compete over the original 1908 course between Windsor Castle and Shepherd's Bush.

The distance, which sounds so much better than the rather utilitarian metric version of 42.195 kilometres, was not officially established until 1924. For many years, it was believed it mirrored the precise distance run by Pheidippides who brought news of victory over the Persians to Athens before falling down dead, but Bryant's comprehensively-researched story provides us with a much more accurate version which involved King Edward VII, Lord Desborough and Windsor Castle's extensive grounds.

Bryant has left no stone unturned as his marvellously well-paced tale (what else could we expect?) builds to one of the Olympic Games' most dramatic moments when Dornado Pietri, the diminutive, almost Chaplinesque Italian athlete stumbled over the marathon finishing line at the 1908 Olympic Games.

An estimated quarter of a million people had lined the race's route and the 90,000 squeezed into London's Olympic stadium (which tellingly, had taken just ten months to build) watched in amazement as the spent, barely conscious figure of Pietri began to circle the track in the wrong direction. Officials frantically waved him the other way before he collapsed. As he stood to restart, he staggered again, possibly aware that another runner, American John Joseph Hayes, had entered the stadium. Dorando battled on, weaving his way towards the finish line, falling to his knees more than once.

Who could not help the ailing Italian? Unfortunately for Pietri, he was held upright by officials who guided him to the line, although as he crossed it, the crowd let loose an appreciative roar, the Italian flag was raised and Dorando was borne away on a stretcher while Hayes trotted home in second place. The Americans lodged a protest at the assistance Dorando had received; it was supported by the scrupulously fair Lord Desborough and eventually, Hayes was declared the race winner.

A simple tale of an upheld protest? Far from it. Bryant spends time introducing his three main characters and providing readers with an essential sense of how prevailing sporting notions of fair play were being eroded by a burgeoning professionalism. He tells of another, perhaps more famous, Olympic row which occurred following the 400m final at the same Games in which the main characters were three Americans and one Briton, a former soldier, Wyndham Halswelle, who had served in the Boer War.

One of Halswelle's opponents, John Carpenter, obstructed him in the race's closing stages and was duly disqualified amid scenes that sound reminiscent of most Saturday afternoons at a Premier League football match. The race was re-run, but the other two Americans refused to participate, leaving Halswelle to canter around and claim gold in what remains the only walkover in Olympic track history.

A dismayed Halswelle retired from sport, returned to the military and was killed fighting in France in 1915. Dornado became the world's first sporting star and raced against Hayes in several marathons with astonishing levels of prize money at stake.

Bryant has written an outstanding book about a turning point in sporting history; it is at once dramatic, touching and thought-provoking and for anyone who cares about, or has an interest in sport, it is well worth reading.


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